On any given Thursday in Australia, a few new films open at the cinemas. In amongst the big blockbusters (and anything else that Hollywood feels like trying on the Australian market), there will always be one or two obscure low-budget foreign films with no big names in them. They’ll come out at two or three cinemas, and everyone who wants to go see them will do so in the first couple of weeks, because by the third week, you’ll either have to see it at 10 in the morning or 9 at night, and by the fourth week it won’t be there.
They all come and go and have a very short life span. Which is what makes As it is in Heaven such a remarkable achievement. It started (like so many of the other little arthouse foreign films) at just the one cinema in Sydney (the fabulously retro Cremorne Orpheum) . You would have expected it to stay around for the obligatory couple of weeks.
Forty-six weeks later (actually, probably 47 now), it’s still there! Why? People are going to see it multiple times! They’re taking their friends!
After hearing about the hype for so long, I went along to see it this Saturday evening. I figured that there might be me and 15 or so other people there – but no, it was a couple of hundred people all packed into the cinema to watch this film. And, just like all the hype said, everyone gave it a round of applause at the end.
So why is it that people are rushing to see this film? Well, obviously, by this stage, there’s just the sheer curiosity of seeing a film that’s absolutely smashing records for how long a film can run. But I think there’s something deeper there. In fact, after having seen the film myself, I would have to say that this film probably is more fascinating because of what it’s doing to the audience rather than the film itself.
But I’ll start at the beginning – the storyline. The plot is fairly straightforward. We see an opening shot of a young boy practicing violin in a wheatfield, until three other boys gang up on him and beat him up. After that, the mother decides to leave this little village so he won’t get picked on. Flash forward a few decades and he’s now Daniel Dareus, the famous conductor.
Famous conductor with a heart condition that is. He collapses after a vigorous rendition of the end of Das Rheingold (thrilling the hearts of all of us Wagner fans) and the doctor tells him he needs to recover his health. And so, for some mad reason, he decides to return to his boyhood village and hopes no one will no him.
He’s only been there a few days, when he meets the two nasty people in the village: Stig, the self-righteous priest and Conny, the abusive husband (and believe it or not, one of the boys who beat him up when he was a kid). However, Daniel also meets a stack of other people as well, most of whom sing in the local church choir. They ask him to stop by one Thursday night to hear them rehearse.
He doesn’t want to be involved, because he’s giving music a rest – but after hearing their first (rather ordinary) efforts, he can’t resist, and starts teaching them to sing.
From here on is where I start to get irritated. The movie obviously turns into an inspiring film where this man gets everyone together and teaches them to sing really well (though, that said, you only really get to hear one song in the whole film, so don’t get your hopes up that this will be a musical extravaganza), but the film also has a bit of a church-bashing agenda.
Stig the priest very quickly turns into the stereotypical religious character I get tired of seeing – he’s completely legalistic and bitter. Furthermore, in one of the film’s key anti-Christian moments of propaganda, there’s a scene where he’s berating his wife for being “sinful” at one of the practices (ie she got a bit tipsy at the supper afterwards and was dancing around) at which stage she lets fly with, “There is no sin. Don’t you understand? And God doesn’t forgive sin. He doesn’t forgive sin because he doesn’t condemn.”
Wow! Maybe it was just the subtitles, but I thought she just said that God doesn’t really care how we live! I think it may have just been the subtitles, because the film soon comes down fairly judgmentally on Conny the wife-beater. Apparently, even if God isn’t condemning him for treating his wife that way, the other members of the choir are. (Well, actually, no, that’s not quite correct. I think his wife lets him off the hook with the line, “You tried your best. I know you did. We all do.” But by this stage, he’s in gaol for assault, so maybe this is a case where God doesn’t condemn wife-beaters, but the law does.)
From the context, I think the main point the film wanted to make about religion is that everybody’s fake, and they don’t approve of sex (even within marriage). I’m a great believer that sex is great within marriage, but do we have to take a sledgehammer to Christianity to make the point?
Anyway, the church having proved itself to be a pretty horrible place to build a community, the choir itself becomes the new centre of the community. Everyone feels accepted in the choir. Everyone has their own unique voice and tone in the choir, but they are all part of a greater whole. And that’s really the point of the whole film.
So, to conclude, you can’t judge this film just by the movie itself. As far as a movie goes, it’s an above-average drama – but I also found it felt quite cliched in a number of places, and there were heaps of melodrama weepy moments as the film went on.
But I think the fact that Sydney has fallen in love with this film (it’s almost become a pilgrimage, really, to go see it) tells you something. One of the key moments in the film for me is the moment where the priest goes out to tell the choir that Daniel will no longer be leading the choir (I won’t spoil it and go into why) and the whole choir just ups and leaves, and heads down to Daniel’s house for a barbecue.
The point is quite clear: if you want acceptance, love and community, you won’t find it in church.
Sadly, I think the filmmakers have a point. More and more I’m hearing from Christians within the church that they are feeling a disconnection from each other. We arrive at church and we feel like other people are strangers. We don’t know if they love us. We’re terrified that they’ll judge us. We wouldn’t feel comfortable turning to them for help if we really did have a problem. Church either feels irrelevant or harshly judgmental.
So what should a church community look like?
And this is where the film is fascinating. In the choir, everyone has a place (regardless of their looks, whether they have a mental disability, or what type of life they lead). In the choir, everyone is an individual, but part of a greater whole. In the choir, people relax and have fun together. In the choir, people forgive one another’s faults. In the choir, people join together to help when others are suffering hardship. The choir is so attractive, that other people just want to join in.
It’s never made explicit in the film – but the point is there: this is what community should look like. A quick glance through the Bible is enough to satisfy me that the early church atmosphere would have been something like this church choir.
And think about it – people all over Sydney are flocking to get their two-hour dose of this community experience. And then returning to bring their friends along. Over and over again. Churches of Sydney, take notice. This film is a threat to what we believe, I will concede. But it’s also highlighting a vast need that must exist in this impersonal, crazy city of ours. It’s worth paying attention to.
3 1/2 out of 5.